These turtles are a delicious food…with these, ships usually supply themselves for a great length of time, and make a great saving of other provisions.
_ —Owen Chase, Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing
_ Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex, 1821.
We’d been wooing whales like women once wooed us
when we sprang a leak off the guano rich coast of Ecuador.
Gallipagos Giants—so gentle under foot—were soon strewn aboard,
wandering freely over deck or stowed away in the hold.
For her gaze heavenward—a signal suffering, privation and despair—
we planned to love one, but the others
we’d sparingly steep in the stock of our sweet and sour soup.
It wasn’t until a month after—anchored and splashing shirt free—
that we spotted a shoal off the lee bow.
_ _Remember the sea as fragile as a boiled egg?
_ _the sky as unforgiving as a spoon . . .
Now recall how effortlessly our Harriett used to sink and swim;
how she used to rise so buoyantly to whatever challenge
she set herself…But this was before the stoving,
before the celerity, before we were reminded
that a whale’s head is as hard as a horse’s hoof,
which, it turns out, is even harder than a tortoise’s shell.
Anthony Caleshu is the author of a novella, a critical study of the poetry of James Tate, and two books of poetry, most recently: Of Whales: in Print, in Paint, in Sea, in Stars, in Coin, in House, in Margins. Current projects include a collection of stories and a new book of poems. Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Boston Review, Narrative Magazine, AGNI Online, Poetry Review, and The Best British Poetry 2014. He is Professor of Poetry at Plymouth University in Southwest England. (updated 9/2014)